When you read a story and ask ‘did that really happen’, odds are it did, definitely, sort of, but it would have been a different kind of real. So how do we take the unbelievably real and make it fiction?
I was seven years old and I knew, almost at the moment it happened, that I would write about my mother’s suicide attempt. I knew because it was already becoming a story told by family, neighbours, doctors and they were telling it badly in bold facts or big fibs. ‘It’s not true’, I shouted and threw shoes, and I was told to be quiet. I kept quiet for as long as it took me to work out a way to tell a story that seemed realer and truer if not exactly either and that story grew into my manuscript ‘How Saints Die’. For two hundred and twenty pages I walked the circus-wire between fact and fib that we call fiction, I kept my balance and then one day I plummeted. We humans have such a befuddled relationship with the real and the true, how we make it and how we avoid it so I wanted to tell you about what made me fall that day.
First I’d like you to try to remember something strange or frightening that happened to you. In playing along you encounter the first problem when trying to write the real. The stress we experience when we live through a traumatic event really messes with how we encode the memory of that event – what we remember is, well, odd. My memory of my mother’s suicide attempt begins with me playing on the sofa with my sister. My doll was dressed as a bride with a long white train (tea-towel). Then I remember my father pulling the head off my doll, because he needed the tea towel for something. I don’t remember my mother at all. There is just a soundless gap where the blood and breaking glass should be, after she had pushed her hands through the glass door. After the gap I can see the broken glass; my mum’s feet kicking in the back of the ambulance and the strange excitement of being left with a neighbour.
When I started to write these moments I filled up the gaps in my memory with an imagined but logical sequence of events yet this somehow killed the truth of the experience. To restore the truth, I discarded fact to preserve the raw oddity. But the oddity on its own created a diffuse dreamy nonsense, which no reader could understand. I needed to find a way to combine the real event with the raw emotion attached to it. I reached into the memory and pulled out the broken doll and gave it to my protagonist ten year old Ellie. In the story, the father breaks then fixes the doll, this enrages Ellie, she can see that the head no longer fits properly even though her father tells her it’s as good as new. The broken doll teaches Ellie what she needs to know about how the adult world treats damage – first a fuddled attempt at fixing followed by denial. Ellie knows the doll is not fixed, in the same way that she knows her mother isn’t ‘fixed’ when she returns from the institution. Ellie puts her doll away in her ‘box of broken things’ until she learns more about what damage needs.
As I opened my own box of broken things through deeper research other odd memories surfaced – I remembered my mother pacing and her cracked blood red lips. Research has a clean, clear scientific feeling, rather like flying above the ground zero of the event as an impartial observer. The language is sterilised clean of all of that sticky reality. My mother suffered a ‘mood disorder’, how refined? Those icky fragmented memories had elegant explanations. The feral restlessness I witnessed in my mother was a recognised ‘symptom’. Tick. Her blood cracked lips were expected, a result of the drug they gave her to suppress saliva production. This was so that when they inserted the rubber mouth guard to protect her teeth during the Electro-convulsive therapy seizure, the guard stayed securely in place. Tick. It was like getting maths questions right. But it wasn’t real or true, it didn’t have the terror of a child seeing the monstrous within a parent. The science of insanity is interested in causes and treatment; those of us who are looking for the realness of insanity are interested in connecting with the sufferer. My protagonist needed to be fearless enough to reach across what terrifies her and run with her mother (just as I did).
Similarly, the red broken lips were not the side-effect of something as mundane as a drug, they were linked to the way in which the damaged deal in damaged stories. For Ellie, her mother’s lips were broken by the bad stories her mother told, stories that cut on the way out.
The circus process seemed to be going well, my writing was fuelled by the research, blending memory and fact to create deeper truths. But there was one irrefutable ‘fact’ about my mother’s breakdown that I had never questioned. Then on page 44 of ‘Electroconvulsive Therapy’ there it was, the greatest fiction – ‘delusion’. My mother believed that her breakdown had been caused by a terrible, unspeakable betrayal. This terrible betrayal defined her marriage; broke childhoods, nearly killed her and the facts were saying that her mind could have generated this all by itself – ‘delusion’.
Sometimes in order to be fearless, in order to get to the healing place that writing can take us to we have to go into that locked room, that box of broken things we have been avoiding most of our lives. I went in. Because ‘That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.’ (Jeanette Winterson). And I lost it because I didn’t have the language for this yet, I was the seven year old girl again. I swerved into a reactive depression that strangely manifested as a big scary rash. Skin is a contact boundary and I did not want contact with the real truth.
I was pretty bad for a few weeks, I kept the box locked, I wasn’t writing because I was hiding and then I called my mum and asked if I could speak to her about her breakdown. She said yes. She said she had wanted to talk to me about it for a long time. There were things she needed to say. I was terrified. I went round with a list of questions and instead watched TV. I kept the box locked. I went round again and it was hard and awkward to talk openly as two adults about her depression. It was hard to keep the box open, but as I did she told me how the world became flat; she told me how hard it was when the people who she needed understanding from could only tell her to ‘pull herself together’. She was so angry but was too exhausted, too defeated to defend herself. She told me about the voices she heard and how she was afraid to let my sister and I out of her sight. She remembered me walking with her when she walked through the night on our black tiled floor. She was pleased I was writing about it and watched attentively as I made notes. I asked her about Electroconvulsive Therapy. She was very clear that she felt ECT saved her life. She had a very bad reaction to the anti-depressant medication she was given. After her recovery the doctor who treated her wanted her to talk to other patients about her success, but she declined, because she did not want to talk about the cause. As I tried to form the question she began to tell me that the worst part of the illness was that no one would believe her when she told them about the cause. I didn’t ask. I haven’t. I never will. It doesn’t matter. Because what is real, true, observable, verifiable doesn’t matter. The most damaging thing that you can do to the storyteller is to not believe them. Whether they are telling a story as a patient, a child or a writer. I closed the box.
We have an inherited distrust of fiction that leaks out even into online dictionary definitions that start with ‘invented’ and end with ‘fib’. But I think that this distrust is because, like me, in the end, we need to avoid close skin contact with the bare truth. We think that by working out the trick bit in the trick of the light makes us stronger, makes us adult. As children we are willing and wanting to be tricked, because children know there is a different kind of reality to be found in the lie. I think that is why I often choose a child’s point of view when writing, because that willingness to be tricked is an open box and that’s why a child had to tell my story. We reach a point in the process of growing up that it becomes a right of passage to ‘trade magic for fact’ (Jack Irons & Eddie Jerome Vedder), we are happy to accept that there are only two worlds, the real and the imagined. One is good and true – tick, one is bad – detention. We sort all experience into one or the other, like sorting seeds from dirt. Science gives us a toolkit to test it, to verify the truth of a statement based on observable evidence – seed or dirt, fact or fiction. But for the writer and those we write for, the real exists in the distance between the two. Truth is not an either or, black or white, it is not just observable evidence or a trick of the light – it is fragments of both, it is somewhere in the little distance ‘between spirit and skin’ (Mark Doty). And to write the real truth, this is where we must sometimes walk and sometimes fall – between fact and fib, between real and imagined, between ‘spirit and skin’.
- ‘Migratory’, Atlantis Poems, Mark Doty, Harper Perennial, 1995
- ‘Electroconvulsive Therapy’, Max Fink MD, Oxford University Press, 2002
- ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal’, Jeanette Winterson, Vintage, 2012
- ‘I’m Open’, No Code, Pearl Jam, Sony, 2000